Jazz and R&B singer Heather Ramsey is honest about overcoming those crises of confidence that most performers (and people) face when they try out something new. Take the time that she auditioned for the director of Purdue Musical Organizations, who pronounced her flat and boring and told her to come back when she could be entertaining. And she says her first performance as a jazz vocalist at dinner club Ruthellen’s was “nerve wracking because I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, and people weren’t necessarily giving any feedback.”
But she overcame, woodshedding with local jazz groups, working with local cover and party bands, studying under a vocal coach and working her way to recording her first album, So Many Stars, to be released at a Nov. 30 brunch show at the Jazz Kitchen.
Ramsey started singing in a church in the unincorporated Northern Indiana town of Grass Creek, learning how to harmonize along with her mother and family members. “I always sang the alto part because she thought it was more fun,” she relates in a phone interview a week before her show. While no formal music school exists at Purdue (Ramsey started by pursuing an engineering degree, later English), the umbrella Purdue Musical Organizations offered her plenty of opportunities to perform with vocal groups, large and small, and get some informal voice training along the way.
When Ramsey moved to Indianapolis in 2001, she began singing jazz with pianist David Meek at Ruthellen’s, and then scored jobs with two cover bands, Tastes Like Chicken and the Jackson Street Orchestra. Ramsey says that her new role as frontwoman before two party bands led her to “tap into a less reserved part of myself, seeing what was possible vocally for a girl that didn’t grow up with R&B.” If she learned that reserve from her years in the church, when her mother wouldn’t allow her to depart from the notes on the page, she continues to work towards adding her own flourishes, working with Nashville-based vocal coach Ron Browning to learn how to impose herself more on the American songbook. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to dig in and find my own voice; [Browning] allows me to have a little more creative permission,” Ramsey explains. “His biggest thing is to stop working so hard when you sing, and since I tend to be an overachiever in the work category, it’s good to relax into the song and not feel like it has to be forced.”
The catalyst for So Many Stars was pianist and arranger Chris Rutkowski, who met Ramsey while she was working a job with the Tom Mullinix big band. “He said, ‘I really enjoy your voice and I think we could work really well together,’” Ramsey remembers. After playing a few shows together (along with bassist Frank Smith) and recording six tracks towards a possible record, the two decided to complete the album, and Rutkowski set about recruiting a drummer and saxophonist. Kenny Phelps signed on as drummer, and Bloomington-based saxophonist Tom Walsh rounded out the instrumentation.
The band approaches the 12 jazz and pop standards on the record with little embellishment, letting Ramsey go to work over simple but energetic arrangements. The jazz standards work best on the album: a rueful “Here’s That Rainy Day” recorded with only piano, and crisp, light and playful takes on up-tempo songs like “Avalon” and “Never Will I Marry.” R&B and pop like “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “At Last” and “How Sweet It Is” don’t have quite the same zest before a straight-ahead jazz group, and without either the vocal acrobatics expected on “At Last” or the requisite groove on “Signed” they end up sounding a bit flat. But not everyone has to belt out a gospel-tinged power ballad, and it’s her intelligent and understated facility with those songs in the jazz corpus that makes So Many Stars an impressive debut.